Maybe Eric wasn’t exactly the best student ever born, but he was good and he had direction. He knew where he was going in life.
He was 6 feet tall already at 17. His skin was still breaking out a little. And he was still taking exception to every damned thing you’d say. Sure, that’s what teenagers do, but this teen did it better than most. When he’d look straight at you with those blue eyes, you knew he’d found his target. You could feel the sting of his words and the heat of his passion—until he moved on to the next topic and the next victim.
Eric Sabodski was a debater by nature and by acclaim. He was taking one more debate trip before the holidays. It wasn’t really necessary. He’d already won a scholarship to the University of Southern California. But it was good practice. And good fun.
His mother, Andrea Tindley, figured it was a good time to take a trip to Wendover. Eric was headed down to USC, and her mother was in Salt Lake for the first time in maybe five years. So she and her sister worked up a little jaunt for the weekend. Eric would be back home sometime on Sunday. So would they.
In fact, they got back before 11 p.m. that night, and she just went to bed. No sense waiting up for a bunch of tired kids to come home. But at 3 a.m. she heard her mother downstairs. There were police at the door. The world went black-and-white and Andrea was sucked into the reels of a bad movie.
“I went to the door and they said, we’re from the chaplain’s office of the police department. Can you sit down?” she recalls.
Susan Horman knew something was wrong. She felt it. That morning, November 5, her sons Jeff and Brian had called to say when they’d be leaving California.
“I’m concerned about you driving back late,” she admonished them. “Please, if the driver gets tired, have him pull over.”
On the phone to her mother in Florida, Susan expressed her fears, the unidentifiable knot in her stomach. Her mother said a prayer.
Carol Millikan got a call, too, that morning, from her 17-year-old daughter, Erin Anderson. Some of her classmates had “broken,” she told her mom. That meant they’d moved into the next round of debate. They weren’t sure when they were leaving, but soon.
It was the last Carol heard until 2 a.m. the next morning. Something terrible had happened, the police told her.
That something was an accident that would change the course of four families’ lives and move them to tackle the unsettled waters of politics. The kids were coming back from three days of debate tournaments. No rest stops. They were rushing to avoid an unexcused absence at Highland High School. Instead, they met tragedy when their van rolled at high speed late at night in central Utah’s Millard County. Eric Sabodski and Jeff Horman, 14, died instantly. Erin Anderson was badly injured, and was left in a coma. Jeff’s 16-year-old brother, Brian Horman, suffered a broken spine, collarbone and ribs, as well as cuts. Matt Ehrman, 17, and the 23-year-old driver, Christian Bradley, were hurt but soon released.
Andrea Tindley is almost mechanical about the details surrounding Eric’s death now. It’s either that or total breakdown. This was her son, her friend. Gone. Eric was almost like an only child. His older brother, Mark, adopted in an earlier marriage, came back for the funeral from Korea. Comfort in a raging storm of grief.
“They were very straightforward,” Andrea says of the police. “The worst part was from 3:30 in the morning, making sure I called all his really close friends before they went to school and found out about it.”
A week later, Andrea went back to work. She had just been promoted and didn’t want to let her employer down. But she didn’t sleep. She couldn’t. She kept reliving that moment when she saw the police.
“I fell down the stairs because I was so tired,” she says. “I’d wake up three or four times a night. I was on total adrenaline. There’s so much to take care of.”
She just filed Eric’s tax returns. How odd. He was just a kid.
“The tragedy of it is just immense,” Andrea explains. “I’m off on Family Medical Leave Act now. I’m just not coping.”
It didn’t help that the Salt Lake School District took responsibility. It was a hollow gesture, at best, steeped in legal significance. The parents were all summoned to the Salt Lake District Offices for a well-orchestrated apology. Everyone was very sorry. There was supposed to be a 15-passenger van driven by the debate coach, whom Christian Bradley would spell. But it wasn’t available. Instead, they got two minivans and only two drivers to handle the whole trip. It was all a big mistake. So the district would free up $500,000 in compensation.
“They said that’s the amount they were liable for, but they said you have to tell us how you want it divided,” Carol remembers. “Here we are, four families—one with a boy who’s slightly injured; a family with one dead son and a critically injured son; one family that lost their only child; and my family, with a daughter who was still in a coma, with multiple abrasions, pneumonia, a collapsed lung and a brain injury. Her life will never be the same. None of us wanted to be Solomon.”
The families pleaded for a mediator. But that would be a conflict of interest, school district officials said. They’d have to hire someone themselves.
But the families knew it wouldn’t work. Carol’s bills for her daughter were already hundreds of thousands of dollars above the $500,000 limit—a state-mandated cap on liability claims against government entities. Susan’s son required multiple surgeries as well as physical therapy, and his bills were already up to $60,000.
“That’s like saying I’m sorry,” says Carol. “Now what? What action are you going to provide?”
It was about more than money, though. It was about a human life. “Suddenly it was not so much about the money, but about how the people responsible value his life,” says Andrea.
Most of the families had lawyers, but not one had the will to fight any of the other families that had suffered a loss.
Howard Stephenson had practically cornered the video market on copies of Braveheart. The tapes were to become a powerful public relations tool in his fight against the government immunity law. In the picture, Mel Gibson played William Wallace, a Scotsman seeking to free his people from British rule.
“The king and his men made the law as they went along, and the rights of the individual didn’t exist,” says Stephenson, director of the Utah Taxpayers Association and the Republican state senator from Draper. “The movie essentially had people standing up for their rights and showing that individuals do have rights.”
That’s what Stephenson wanted to do in the 2000 Legislature—stand up for rights. “The issue of a [liability] cap should be repugnant to any American who feels that we should each be liable for the harm we cause to other people,” he says. “The cap on liability of government is really a philosophy that the king can do no wrong.”
Centuries after William Wallace, the Magna Carta was signed, limiting the king’s power. “Finally in 1776, we said individuals have rights. But in Utah, we haven’t believed that when it comes to government,” says Stephenson.
For decades now, Utah government has operated with limited fear of consequence for its actions. The Legislature had agreed to cap liability awards at $250,000 per person or $500,000 per accident.
“I used to kid around and say, if you get hit by a UTA bus, I’ll be rich,” says Andrea. “Now I know, you’re not going to be rich, you’re going to be dead or seriously injured.”
Stephenson has long wanted the cap gone, but intense lobbying by governmental entities has made that impossible. Governments would go broke, their insurance premiums would skyrocket and victims would unfairly reap profits from frivolous claims, lobbyists rationalized.
“It’s really a barbaric concept to think that government is not responsible for the harm it may do to citizens; it’s an outrageous concept, when you think about it,” Stephenson says.
Outrageous as it seems, Stephenson was able only last year to get the cap raised to $500,000 per person and $1 million per accident, but the law won’t go into effect until this July.
“I would even be willing to limit the pain-and-suffering kind of decisions when it comes to government, but you should not have a limit on the economic damages,” he says. “I’d like to see it go to court.”
But the only way to resolve this Hobson’s Choice would be for the Highland High parents to convince legislators to raise the liability cap. Lillian Garrett knew what the parents had been going through, and understood their bonds. Garrett, a lobbyist and former director of the Utah Trial Lawyers Association, has a grandson at USC who once debated at Highland High. Get this thing changed, she urged the parents. Contact your representative and see what he can do.
In fact, Sen. Gene Davis, a Democrat, was happy to help, even though by November the Legislature was steaming toward its opening date in January. Bills, for the most part, had been filed and political leaders were already working on their priorities for the upcoming session.
But Davis pushed the issue in under what is called a boxcar bill—that is, legislation that is titled but has no language. The parents were surprised that they could actually help craft the bill through the Legislature’s Research and General Counsel arm that offers the legal expertise. They aimed to raise the cap to $500,000 per person and $5 million per accident, retroactively so that they could benefit.
When Garrett got the parents together, she realized they didn’t have a clue about the system. She was going to help them without pay, but she couldn’t do it alone. She’d have to teach them to lobby—fast.
“We were so green,” says Susan Horman. “We didn’t know what to say or who to talk to.”
They started working on the Senate. It was Davis’ turf, and with 29 members it was a little easier than the House, which has 75 representatives jockeying for position.
“Under [Senate President] Lane Beattie, the senators didn’t come out as much and your access time was from quarter to 12 to noon,” says Garrett. Al Mansell, who’s now president, isn’t as strict about floor time, and that gave the parents more of an opportunity to lobby.
Garrett showed them how to send notes in to senators, how to recognize them and how to stop them in the halls for a chat. She also gave them a heads-up on committee hearings and rallied the parents when necessary.
“It really helped to have someone like Lillian, who’s a little more savvy with the process,” says Andrea Tindley. “I was amazed at how much access people have. You have no idea how much access you actually have to the Legislature, and I think it’s great.”
But access is relative. During the short time the Legislature is in session, hundreds of paid lobbyists strong-arm their way into the line of sight. Citizen lobbyists have the extra handicap of not knowing their targets or understanding the protocol. The parents of the Highland High students aren’t the only group of work-a-day citizens attempting to work through the system. But what many taxpayers find when attempting to change the law is that it takes a lot of time and a lot of political savvy to get things done. Usually, the exercise is too daunting for people who aren’t lawmakers or professional lobbyists.
Jill Baeder is a member of another citizens group. She found out about protocol the hard way. A practiced lobbyist pushed her out of the way and stepped on a colleague’s feet to get to a legislator. “I think that some of these professional lobbyists felt like they had first rights—that they could knock us down and step in front of us because they had a badge on,” says Baeder, who fast got over any timidity.
She and several other Salt Lake City parents were trying to persuade legislators that school closures in the Salt Lake City district could severely limit parents’ ability to choose a school best suited to their child. Public school choice was made law in 1993, but without guarantees. Some schools could be closed and others packed so tightly with students that there would be virtually no choice.
The parents found an ally in Rep. Afton Bradshaw, R-Salt Lake, but were up against experienced professional lobbyists and their war chest from, among others, the School Boards Association and the Utah Education Association.
Unlike the Highland High parents, the school choice group didn’t have a professional mentor like Lillian Garrett. They were working parents who had to take time from their lives to participate in the political arena. They sought help from others familiar with the Legislature.
“Some of the other more professional lobbyists were willing to talk to us and help,” Baeder says. “I thought it would be difficult, if not impossible, to speak to these legislators. The public sees them as inaccessible. I thought that only professional lobbyists, wealthy business leaders and powerful political groups had their ears. I never thought any one of these legislators would give me the time of day.”
They were surprised when they got more than that. “I found the legislators thriving on contact with lobbyists and eager to hear and be heard,” says Wanda Gayle, another school-choice parent. “I was surprised at how easy it was, how accessible lawmakers were, and how much better it made me feel that I had been proactive about the issue.”
Feeling better, perhaps, but defeated nonetheless. The school choice issue lost out because legislators saw it as a matter of local control, not as a toothless law that could easily be thwarted. The bill forwarded by school choice advocates made it out of the Senate, but in a very different form—as a way of easing the financial burden on school districts that take out-of-district students. Ultimately, though, it stalled for lack of funding in the House of Representatives.
For citizen lobbyists, learning the rules of the Legislature, as complicated as they are, is easier than discovering how to play the game of political hardball that is practiced on Capitol Hill. Luck and timing are important.
Mel Radmall learned all about stalling, among other things. “I went up to the Legislature a virgin, and I got screwed well,” he says. Radmall had the misfortune of a politically incorrect issue. While education and liability are relatively benign, landfills and waste disposal sparks heat from almost all directions. And the 2001 Legislature happened to be dealing with the explosive question of how to tax Envirocare and its low-level toxic waste.
Radmall won’t have any toxic waste. He has 266 acres in Fairfield that he wants to convert to a landfill for construction and demolition wastes only. Nothing toxic, just trash. Under the law, Radmall had a lot to do before he could open his landfill. First he had to buy the land, pay a $1,000 fee and then apply for a permit. He had to make sure there weren’t any wetlands, exotic soils or strange water flows. All sorts of stuff—150 pages of it. The permit application then went to the state for review and comment, and of course, a waiting period. Then Radmall went back to the county Board of Adjustments and jumped through some more hoops. Utah County had a list of 14 things for Radmall to finish before it would award a permit. “I had to put up these wind things, asphalt the road and then they’d issue the permit,” he says.
Since 1993, the law has required that landfill owners take all this stuff up to the Legislature for the final approval in the form of a resolution. It’s designed as a check-and-balance system. “I personally went up there as a citizen and worked for this law,” says Radmall. “I’d never been up to the Legislature before.”
Sen. John Valentine suggested to Radmall that he hire a lobbyist. “John said you probably will need a lobbyist because there’s no way you can talk to people or do anything,” says Radmall. He settled on Nancy Secrist, a longtime lobbyist well-tuned to waste issues.
Before the session started, Secrist had Radmall making the rounds of Democratic and Republican fund-raisers, introducing himself and talking them up. As the session neared, Radmall felt like he wanted to do the lobbying personally. He could have had Secrist call in the troops, but this was his landfill and his issue, and he wanted the lawmakers to know what he was willing to do for it.
Radmall stood dutifully outside the House and the Senate, sending in notes, waiting for someone to acknowledge him. Some days, he’d bring his wife and son, but often it would be just him. He kept score on a clipboard: how many for, how many against. He talked to the legislators again and again. This should be a no-brainer, he thought. There’s really no convincing to be done.
But there was. “When I got in the Senate, I felt like I was trying to fight partisanship,” Radmall says. “That’s what I was doing, and there’s nothing wrong with it especially, except when I’m just asking for permission because I have done everything correct.”
He also found some legislators so distracted by conservative philosophy that they ignored the fact of law. One Republican senator said he voted against Radmall because he thought the Legislature should butt out on local issues. In fact, the Legislature had passed the ’93 law in order to butt in.
Radmall talked to one senator five times. There were checkmarks all up and down his score-pad. He was absolutely sure the senator was with him. “When I was counting votes, he voted against me,” Radmall says. “Ol’ Nancy has a saying that the Senate is like herding cats.”
Nonetheless, Radmall fought his way through on an issue that should have been clear-cut. In the end, however, the Legislature adjourned without addressing his landfill. It had the sad fate of sitting behind the huge issue of who should govern applied technology education in the state.
Timing is often critical during the legislature’s 45-day session. The Highland High parents, however, had no control over their timing. “Senator (Steve) Poulton was probably most honest person I dealt with up there; he was pretty straightforward about the timing involved,” says Andrea Tindley. “We started so late. Generally you start in August. But I had to say, well, my son didn’t die until November. I don’t think he realized.”
Lillian Garrett tried to give the Highland parents a crash course on lobbying. There were ground rules, like don’t take up too much time. “They decided Erin’s mother, Carol Millikan, would be their spokesperson; she’d introduce the parents and she’d tell the story,” Garrett says. “People will respect you if you respect their time, too.”
Suddenly, they were faced with creating sound bytes of their children’s lives, of their hopes and their tragedy. “They had to tell their story as brief as possible because time is short and everybody is trying to petition the senators for their cause,” Garrett says.
She pointed to a group of polygamist women as an example of effective citizen lobbying. Dozens of polygamist wives converged on the Capitol to protest a bill by Senate Minority Whip Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park. Allen was trying to prevent young girls from being forced into marriage.
The number of women could have been intimidating, but the group had an obvious appointed leader. Garrett noticed that she not only spoke for the group, but also was well-organized enough to send out other women to talk to various legislators.
The Highland parents were organized, too, but still grieving. They hit committee members first, and then the Senate leaders. It wasn’t easy. Someone had to be up there all the time. “These parents were really good about keeping in touch,” says Garrett. “Even the kids came up for the debate on the floor. I gave them a roster so they could check who voted.”
The Senate passed the bill to raise the liability cap unanimously. But it was a brief victory. Carol thought it was calculated, the feel-good thing to do, without much meaning.
The House, on the other hand, wasn’t into feel-good. They were into bottom-line economics, and for some, distraction. One legislator told Susan Horman he’d get funding for the bill if she produced a letter from the lawyers saying they wouldn’t take any of it in fees. She followed through and e-mailed him the letter declining fees. But he responded by saying he’d promised only not to vote against the bill.
Another representative sent her to the governor’s office to look into the State Board of Examiners. The board, made up of the governor, state auditor and attorney general, can make exceptions to the liability limit in certain cases. The board is so rarely used, however, that few people knew how to access it. And when they finally did, Susan found that any ruling from the board would have to be approved in the next session of the Legislature, anyway.
The biggest disappointment, though, was in the final hours of the 2001 session. A legislative leader had promised to bring up the bill in caucus, so that funding could be assured. “I sat for an hour and a half,” says Susan. “I was tearful. And then this House leader came up to me and threw his hands to his head and said, oh my gosh, I forgot to bring it up.”
Then it was midnight, and months of devotion and hard work were snuffed out like so many candles. The savvy and sophisticated lobbyists, on the other hand, got their cake as always.
“I still think it’s a citizen’s Legislature,” says Lillian Garrett. “The high-paid lobbyists do have a lot of respect, but so do citizens.”
It’s just not the kind of respect you can take to the bank. Nevertheless, citizen lobbyists remain passionate. “We’ll be back,” says Susan Horman. “It’s important, whether the bill passes for my own personal tragedy or to help someone else.”